Integrating Birds in Range Management across the Sagebrush Steppe

Final Report for EW12-009

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2012: $60,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Laura Quattrini
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (dba Bird Conservancy of the Rockies)
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies objectives involve raising awareness for at-risk species bird species and their habitat needs so that conservation efforts are incorporated into land management decisions ultimately stabilizing or increasing the population trends of these species. To do this Bird Conservancy organized and developed a number of outreach events as well as dispersed educational materials to raise awareness. We held four “Sagebrush Dependent Birds and Management Actions” workshops in spring 2014 presenting to nearly 130 resource professionals from Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Forest Service, Conservation Districts, Extension agents, non-profits, state wildlife agencies and a handful of landowners. We held one webinar on sagebrush bird identification and ecology in which 57 resource professionals attended. BCR had 500 “Voices of Sagebrush Birds” CD created and dispersed roughly 350 to date. We continually fulfill requests for the “Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds” and have given out approximately 5,700 over the course of the grant cycle. The “Integrating Bird Conservation into Sagebrush Management” manual has Version 1 complete. Due to the linkage of the manual with the creation of our Decision Support Tool being complete we do need to wait for printing the manual so we can incorporate instructions for the DST tool. Bird Conservancy staff have attended national, regional, and local partner meetings so to continue sharing our project results and tools to assist with management planning decisions. We also have Private Lands Biologists who work with other resource professionals and private landowners to raise awareness for bird habitat needs to incorporate those needs into on-the-ground management projects. It is our intention that the information we provide to other resource professionals be used in a similar manner – to implement habitat conservation across the landscape.

Project Objectives:

This SARE proposal is part of a larger Bird Conservancy sagebrush ecosystem conservation strategy. Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (Bird Conservancy) recognizes that agricultural producers play a critical role in providing habitat for wildlife as well as food and fiber for people. We strive to find win-win solutions for both producer and wildlife. In cooperation with Point Blue, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), state universities, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), non-profits, and private landowners and others, Bird Conservancy has proposed to incorporate increased awareness and improved management into habitat projects for sage-grouse to better meet the needs of sagebrush bird species while achieving objectives of agricultural producers. Ultimately better informed land management decisions will be made and create seamless conservation across private and public lands.

Short-term:

The critical first step toward conservation of sagebrush obligate birds is raising awareness of resource managers and private landowners about the birds and their habitat requirements. In the short-term this will be indicated by the number of resource professionals and landowners we reach, how they evaluate the training sessions, sagebrush manual, and Decision Support Tool (DST). The number of additional pocket guides, CDs, and training manuals we distribute, and the number of ‘hits’ our DST receives online will also be metrics of success. Awareness can also be measured by the number of landowners enrolling in sagebrush habitat enhancement projects – the more landowners enrolling, the more landowners whose awareness is being focused on wildlife on their properties.

 Long-term:

Integrating birds into range management and monitoring prescriptions will help improve range and sagebrush health and the economic base of private lands. After the trainings, with time and experience, land managers and landowners will become increasingly proficient at identification of bird species and understanding of what their presence means. There will be better appreciation and understanding of the diversity of habitat needs of birds in the sagebrush system. This will lead to a positive shift in land managers’ behavior and the right practices will be put in the right places to benefit agricultural producers and to forward sagebrush conservation and ultimately reverse declining population trends avoiding the need for USFWS regulation. Avian population trends will continually be tracked through time by Bird Conservancy's avian monitoring team and other partners.

Introduction:

The sagebrush sea and bird species it supports are among the highest conservation priorities of North. More than 350 sagebrush associated plants and animals have been identified as species of conservation concern. Human use and fragmentation of the landscape has resulted in the loss and alteration of millions of acres of sagebrush habitats. Threats, including sod-busting, unsustainable livestock grazing, exotic plant invasion and an altered fire cycle, often cause habitat to transition from highly suitable to subpar conditions. This has had detrimental effects on bird species populations. The 2011 State of the Birds Report accounts 39% of aridland (including sagebrush) bird species are of conservation concern and more than 75% are in decline. Several sagebrush obligate bird species (e.g., Brewer’s Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, and Sagebrush Sparrow) have been listed by state agencies as threatened or sensitive. Other taxa (e.g., Great Basin butterflies, sand dune beetles, leatherside chub) have been petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Starting in 1999, the Greater Sage-grouse became a target of several petitions requesting the species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 2010, it was determined to have “Warranted but Precluded” status. The immediate need for strategic actions to protect the sage-grouse, the sagebrush ecosystem and the agricultural producers dependent on it was realized. Due to science-based, partnership-driven efforts, in 2015 the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined protection for the Greater Sage-grouse is not warranted and the species was withdrawn from the candidate species list. While the sage-grouse conservation effort has been positive, conservation efforts based on a single-species approach may not be effective in reversing population declines of many migratory bird species. Many other species, including Species of Greatest Conservation Need, will likely benefit from the management that has occurred for sage-grouse. However, to assess the effectiveness of certain conservation measures on non-target species and increase our confidence in management decisions and strategies, there is an increased need to monitor wildlife responses. Thus, the implementation of management actions across the landscape and their effects on multiple bird species need to be considered carefully and strategically to get the biggest bang for the conservation dollar.

There is a need and desire from landowners, Extension educators and other resource professionals to learn more about wildlife habitat and how to use birds as indicators of habitat health. Several rangeland monitoring guides state that “wildlife use” is a form of monitoring of rangelands however none of the guides describe in detail how to observe wildlife habitat or what to look for. In the 2009 Survey of Western Region Extension Educators’ Knowledge and Actions in Sustainable Agriculture when asked if they had observed improved wildlife habitat and increased wildlife populations, 31% of educators said they were “not sure”. These educators listed “wildlife habitat” as one of seven topic areas in sustainable agriculture that would be information helpful to their practice. By raising awareness of landowners and resource professionals about sagebrush obligate birds they will understand the significance of their presence or absence. More importantly they will better be able to integrate bird conservation measures into their land management actions and priorities, improve the health and sustainability of their ranches and aid in the recovery of declining species.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Pat Deibert
  • Danielle Flynn
  • Wendell Gilgert
  • Summer Olsen
  • James Pauley
  • San Stiver
  • Tammy VerCauteren
  • Geoffrey Walsh

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Decision Support Tool:

A web-based Decision Support Tool (DST) incorporating Sage-grouse and landbird habitat relationships, landowner needs, sagebrush type, and SGI management options was created with funds from the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG). To do this Bird Conservancy went through a structured decision-making framework that involves stakeholder from the beginning of the planning process. To gain the initial insight from stakeholders we developed and distributed a survey (emailed a link to a Survey Monkey – www.surveymonkey.com) among resource professionals, landowners, and researchers (Attachment_1-Survey_Sagebrush_birds). This survey results indicated the variables important to land managers when making their decisions and were incorporated into the development of the DST. Next, bird occupancy- and density- habitat models were created using Bird Conservancy’s Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) data as the base data. The habitat variables important to stakeholders were pulled from the models and structured together with multiple Ecological Site Description state-and-transition models to create the DST. A user-friendly website is now being developed for resource professionals to help determine how land management actions can influence the vegetation structure of different sagebrush communities and in turn affect available habitat for birds.

Training sessions:

The stakeholder survey results also helped us design the curriculum for the training sessions. We implemented four training sessions in CO, WY, and MT and one webinar to train resource professionals and landowners how to use birds as indicators of sagebrush condition and how to use the DST to guide sound management practices.

Manual:

Much time went into writing and researching for the manual - Integrating Birds into Sagebrush Management.

Educational Materials:

In addition to the training sessions and manual we continued distributing the already developed Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds. In partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology we had a CD of sagebrush bird calls and songs for distribution made.

Landowner outreach:

Bird Conservancy's Private Lands Wildlife Biologists fulfill their essential job functions of delivering habitat conservation through offering technical assistance to both resource professionals and private landowners and through offering financial assistance through Farm Bill Conservation Programs and leveraging partner habitat dollars. They conduct site visits and habitat analyses to identify the best potential management actions that are win-win for wildlife and the producers.

Partnerships:

To gain buy-in to enhance management efforts for bird conservation we need support from local, state, regional, and national agencies to ensure we have a bottom-up/top-down approach for sagebrush conservation in the West. Bird Conservancy staff attend numerous meetings and conferences to raise awareness about bird conservation needs and gain buy-in.

Outreach and Publications

 

Outcomes and impacts:

Landowner and resource professional survey:

A total of 145 people completed the survey. Of this, 15 were private landowners and managers, 78 were public land managers, 53 were resource professionals who assist private landowners, and 21 ‘others’.

Results:

  • We reached the correct group of stakeholders – only 1.5% of the people that started the survey did not make land management decisions on land with sagebrush.
  • We asked respondents to rank the top 9 considerations when making land management decisions (Table 1). Interestingly, “effect on wildlife” was # 1 for all respondents and #2 for landowners (behind “water conservation”).
  • To tease apart what attributes of vegetation and wildlife (from previous question) are important we asked respondents to rank the vegetation attributes (Table 2).
  • 86.9% of respondents said they would like to learn more about sagebrush dependent birds and their habitat needs. For the 9% that answered “depends” they listed “available time,” “training location/proximity,” and “if there’s information about other species besides Greater Sage-grouse” as deciding factors.
  • 92.4% of respondents said they would consider including sage dependent bird habitat needs into land management decisions if they knew the action(s) would increase population levels of at-risk species.
  • Respondents were “interested” or “very interested” in attending a 1-day (74.3%) or 2-day (62.7%) training session that covered the topics listed in the questions above.
  • When asked what they would specifically like the training sessions to cover the three responses that rose to the top were:
  1. How different bird species respond to land management actions
  2. Which management actions benefit Sage-grouse AND other bird species
  3. Prioritizing areas on the landscape to implement management actions
  • Respondents said the best months to hold the trainings were February and March

 Results from the survey helped us build the curriculum for our training sessions and helped develop the structure for the DST.

“Sagebrush Dependent Birds and Management Actions” Trainings:

Four one-day workshops were completed in Craig, CO, Rawlins & Gillette, WY, and Lewistown, MT (Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory presents). The workshops accomplished the following for participants:

  • Increased awareness for Sagebrush Obligate Songbirds, identification and habitat needs,
  • Introduced, and solicited feedback on a prototype DST which will help predict outcomes of habitat enhancement and restoration on songbird populations, and
  • Introduced information to influence future management decisions for multiple bird species. 

Bird Conservancy presented to almost 130 people from BLM (27.5%), NRCS (15.8%), state natural resource agencies (15.7%), non-profits (7.2%), Energy corporations (6.4%), USFWS (5.9%), US Forest Service (FS) (5.3%), private consultants (5.3%), University (student and employee; 4.9%), Conservation Districts (3%), and a handful of landowners. We gave an overview of Bird Conservancy’s monitoring program (Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions) and how that data is used to build bird-habitat relationship models. We discussed the ecology of birds and how our bird-habitat relationship models are correlated with different species. We covered how to identify each in the field and gave an informational presentation on Bird Conservancy’s Avian Data Center. We concluded the workshops with an overview of the development of the DST. We presented on what information is included in it, how it works, and what information it gives a user. This resulted a group conversation in which workshop participants provided constructive criticism about the tool. They discussed with each other why aspects of the tool did and didn’t work or make sense. In addition, we provided surveys for them to answer specific questions related to the tool. For example, if we have to put a habitat variable into different percentage bins, what numbers make sense. We collected feedback about what would make the DST most beneficial and functional in the landscapes where these partners work which has been incorporated into the tool. We consider this an accomplishment because their feedback is allowing us to incorporate real concerns into our DST.

Participants also evaluated the workshops and the usefulness of the information (Table 3). Overall the workshops scored a 3.91 out of 5.0 for the information being useful to the participants. Individual topic scores were greatest for avian ecology and ID (4.41 / 5.0) which indicates resource professionals are interested in learning more about sagebrush obligate bird species. Topic scores were lowest for the DST overview and discussion (3.2 / 5.0). This actually was as expected due to these workshop sections being focused more on their feedback on the DST to us. In some verbal conversations after the workshops as well as written comments on the evaluation, many of the participants were very appreciative of us getting their feedback for the development of the DST – all expressed how important that would be for building a tool that will work well and be well-used.

Webinar:

Webinar InvitationIn January of 2016, Bird Conservancy  conducted an on-line webinar “Sagebrush Bird ID & Habitat Needs.” A total of 57 people attended the live webinar. Participants included 45% NRCS, 15% BLM, 15% USFS, 10% state, 10% other federal, and 5% non-profit. BCR also posted a link to the webinar on YouTube which has had 99 unique views and has been shared by 3 viewers. The webinar has also been shared by Idaho Fish and Game Department and IWJV. The webinar can be found with this link: https://youtu.be/_NDr42HFsRc?list=PLsuvgr-yGQydc9QtR6AEyTpv7OPmtq6cY.

Manual:

The manual has gone through several drafts with several authors contributing. While we did have great interest in creating a manual that would be useful to both landowner and resource professional, in the end, the manual is a bit more technical than we’ve been told landowners would have an interest in.

This guide is intended for conservation practitioners working in the sagebrush ecosystem in the eastern part of sagebrush range, including Colorado, Wyoming, western South Dakota, Montana and southeast Idaho, as some of the management tools described are only valid in those areas. Information in this guide is applicable on both public and private lands. This guide is not meant to take place of the local knowledge gained from long-term interactions with the land being managed. Management goals and objectives are usually very site specific and will be different under different environmental, political, social, and economic circumstances. Goals for management should be determined by site potential. 

The guide has five sections. The Introduction provides the justification of why it is important to consider all sagebrush obligate birds when planning for land management. The Sagebrush Ecosystem section gives general information about the ecosystem. This ecosystem is not just one expansive field of sagebrush; there are many microhabitats and different plant associations that make up the overall ecosystem that are each important to different species of birds. Understanding the ecological classification system used to describe those plant associations will be important for making informed management decisions. We provide general information about Major Land Resource Areas and ecological site descriptions, used by resource agencies to describe ecosystem dynamics and give reference for additional information sources. The section on Birds as Indicators will give the reader a  general understanding of the different components of habitat that are potentially important for the presence or absence of a bird species. The Conservation Actions section provides general management suggestions when a particular activity is occurring at a site. The Tools for Management Decisions section provides a more detailed description of several tools land managers can use to enhance decisions that foster a multi-species approach to conservation. Appendix A provides details for 20 bird species found within the sagebrush ecosystem. These details will give readers a better understanding of specific habitat requirements necessary for a species to be present and will give managers the knowledge they need to incorporate these requirements into land management decisions.

Version 1 of the manual has been completed (Integrating Birds into Sagebrush Managementv1). We will continue to refine this manual and incorporate the instructions for the web-based Decision Support Tool through the spring and summer 2016 with the NRCS CIG funds. Once complete we expect to print just over 2,000 copies.  Bird Conservancy will have a roll-out of both the DST and the manual. This will include a "How-to" webinar for the tool. We will disperse the manual via mail as well as at partner meetings and conferences.

Educational Materials:

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology developed and made 500 “Voices of Sagebrush Birds” CD (Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory_CD bifold) for Bird Conservancy. We’ve distributed about 350 of these at the workshops and other outreach opportunities and on-line requests.

 We continuously get requests for the "Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds" (Sage_cover) from both individuals as well as agencies. During the grant cycle we’ve dispersed approximately 5,700 guides.

One-on-one landowner visits:

Four BCR Sage-grouse Private Lands Wildlife Biologists (PLWB) have been reaching out to landowners and doing one-on-one landowner visits. During the grant cycle the PLWBs have done nearly 400 visits with different ranches to discuss potential habitat enhancement projects and assist them with applying for various conservation funding sources. Oftentimes, these visits are done in partnership with other agencies. The landowner visits are a great opportunity for resource professionals to share their expertise with each other and the landowners.

Partnerships/ Raising awareness:

Another venue for raising awareness is by attending meetings with partners and giving presentations at natural resource conferences. BCR’s Executive Director, Stewardship Director, Science Director, and Biometrician have all attended meetings and had conversations to build and maintain partnerships with various agencies and organizations for this project. Some examples of these meetings and presentations include:

Meetings:

  • Sage Grouse Initiative partner meetings
  • Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies meetings
  • Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society annual conference
  • Intermountain West Joint Venture meetings
  • Northern Great Plains Joint Venture meetings
  • Executive Director visited with Assistant Chief of NRCS and Under Secretary Bonnie about the DST, the initiative and need for measures of success for the sagebrush obligate suite of birds in September in Washington, D.C.
  • Executive Director visited with Audubon of the Rockies and World Wildlife Fund about the DST and modeling a similar effort in the grasslands.
  • BCR has been conference calling with IWJV and other partners to develop a Sage Obligate Outreach Strategy that will raise awareness of managers about at-risk birds and their habitat requirements and communicate recent investments in planning tools and how to use them (see below).

Presentations:

  • Pavlacky, D.C., Jr., J.A. Blakesley, and D.J. Hanni. August 2013. Hierarchical occupancy estimation to predict bird species distributions. American Ornithologists’ Union/ Cooper Ornithological Society: 2013, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
  • North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference – Sage Grouse Executive Committee meeting in Washington, DC.
  • Gallagher, S.W., D. Pavlacky, L. Quattrini, T. VerCauteren. BCR Conservation Efforts in the Sagebrush Steppe, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Summer meeting 2013, Omaha, NE (July 2013)
    5th International Partners in Flight Conference and Conservation Workshop at Snowbird, UT (August 2013)
  • Pavlacky, D. C., Jr., D. J. Hanni, and S. Gallagher. September 2014. Integrating monitoring data and ecological site descriptions to achieve multi-species bird conservation in working landscapes. Annual meeting of American Ornithologists’ Union, Cooper Ornithological Society, and Society of Canadian Ornithologists. Estes Park, Colorado, USA
     

Rocky Mountain Avian Data Center:

While not included in our original SARE proposal, we believe the Avian Data Center (http://rmbo.org/v3/avian/home.aspx) can be an important tool for other resource professionals in learning more about avian species. It is the storing house for avian information collected by Bird Conservancy and our collaborators in the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Intermountain West. It is a “one-stop” data center for current data, results, methods, and materials produced and/or collected by Bird Conservancy and our collaborators. Much of this information is available to the public, land managers, and resource professionals. The goal is by sharing what we have learned it encourages others to join in bird and habitat conservation. It is another tool that resource professionals can use to learn about what research and monitoring projects Bird Conservancy and partners are doing and how it might relate to their areas of interest. During the cycle of the grant Bird Conservancy has given dozens of presentations to over 400 resource professionals.

Sage obligate tool mini-strategy:

As a result of the work done on this project, in discussions with partners, and with assistance from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation contract, we have contracted out Ashley Anne Dayer, an affiliate of Intermountain West Joint Venture, to help develop a strategy for management tool dispersion for conservation partners working on the sagebrush ecosystem. Several spatial planning tools and management resources exist to identify beneficial conditions for sage obligate species, practices to improve these conditions, and best places to undertake sagebrush management activities to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem. The goals of the mini-strategy are to 1) raise the awareness of resource managers, other conservation partners, and to a lesser extent private landowners about at-risk sagebrush birds and their habitat requirements to help them better integrate sagebrush and sagebrush-steppe conservation measures into their land management actions, conservation programs, and habitat priorities, and 2) ensure resource managers and other partners are aware of tools and how to use them (e.g. Avian Knowledge Network, e-bird data/breeding bird data, HABPOPS, Bird Conservancy’s Decision Support Tool, & IWJV Sage Grouse Core Area Conservation Strategy-Potential Impact to Sagebrush Obligates). Ashley assisted Bird Conservancy compile descriptions of the tools for inclusion in our “Integrating Bird Conservation into Sagebrush Management” manual.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Landowner and resource professional survey - Completed December 2012.

DST - Tool completed Spring 2015; Web-based user-friendly interface will be complete by spring 2016.

“Sagebrush Dependent Birds and Management Actions” Trainings - Completed March/April 2014.

CD - completed March 2014.

Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds - previously developed; distributed throughout grant cycle.

Webinar - completed January 2016.

Manual - Version 1 completed winter 2015.

One-on-one landowner visits - throughout grant cycle.

Partnerships/ Raising awareness - throughout grant cycle.

 

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Understanding how resource professionals work with private landowners, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies was in a good position to complete this project. Our Stewardship Program employs Private Lands Wildlife Biologists who work with private landowners by offering technical assistance (raising awareness) and financial assistance (via Farm Bill and other sources) to implement on-the-ground habitat projects for wildlife conservation. Like other resource professionals who work with landowners, once equipped with the information necessary to incorporate birds into management plans, the Biologists are capable of passing this information along and raising awareness of bird habitat needs.

 The long-term goal of the outreach we provide is for landowners and public land managers to incorporate multi-species conservation into management efforts. Often, landowners who are typically in-tune with their properties are already aware of the wildlife their land supports. It may be up to the Biologist to inform the landowner of the significance of having certain species on the property is. If at-risk species are present, it may be worthwhile for the landowner to monitor and track those species their land (and management) supports. If land management practices are not achieving economic or ecological goals of the landowner, our Biologists also offers technical assistance to help the landowner incorporate wildlife habitat needs into management plans. It is our intention that the information we provide to other resource professionals be used in a similar manner – to implement habitat conservation across the landscape.

 

Future Recommendations

Resource professionals continue to be hungry for information and training regarding sagebrush birds and their habitat needs. We recommend additional training sessions that will bring resource professionals into the field to learn bird ID and songs with binoculars and field guides as opposed to a presentation. While the presentation was well-received by the workshop participants, we believe field experience is the best way to learn the species. In addition, knowing how to do avian point counts can add value to any performance monitoring done on sites where managers are interested in knowing effects of management as birds can be an indicator for a change on the landscape. While we did include how to do point counts in the manual, again, field experience is the best way to learn.

One of the complications we encountered with this project is with trying to pair two or more funding sources to accomplish different aspects of one project. The portion of the project the Western SARE funding was covering (manual development and workshops) was to happen after having developed the DST. While it is common for many organizations to use more than one grant to fund a project, if one funding source doesn’t come through as originally indicated it can hinder the original plans for the project. Our NRCS CIG funding didn’t come through until after our proposed start date which pushed back the project for several months, explaining the need for no-cost extensions. It is our recommendation that organizations create contingency plans in the course that grant agreement timing or amounts do not line up as proposed.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.